ICELAND, DEFROSTED by Edward Hancox (SilverWood Books, 2013)

If I was commissioning a book about Iceland, I would want something that was more than a standard check list of places to visit and things to do.

I’d want a book that told me exactly why this small duck-shaped country is so unique, stunningly beautiful and how it comes to be blessed with the knack of producing so many stunning musicians.

And lo and behold, I don’t need to commission anything because Edward Hancox has just published almost exactly the book I’ve been looking for. The book was crowdfunded through kickstarter and hit the target in just six days, as clear an indication as any that I am not the only one looking for a book on this topic.

To further demonstrate that he and I were on the same wavelength, I had just written a review of the album by Samaris (yet another great new band from Reykjavik) and then found that Hancox had published an interview with the teenage trio on his website.
As if this wasn’t enough, he is also, like me, from the English Midlands – Shropshire to be precise (I’m from Lichfield in Staffordshire).

Being in his early 30s, Hancox is more than 20 years younger than me but, heck, you’re only as young as you feel, anyway, right?

‘Heck’, by the way, derives from Icelandic and one of the authors favourite crossover words ; another is berserk. I didn’t know the etymology of either – geyser was the only Icelandic word I though I knew.

A geyser does what geyser’s do best.

The book begins in Reykjavik and then follows the author as he takes us on a circuitous route around the rest of the country. We follow him being awestruck by glaciers that still cover 11% of Iceland’s surface, keeping a safe distance from some of the thirty one active volcanoes and taking frequent stop-offs in the hot pots, luxuriating in the numerous naturally heated pools. Throughout, he nurtures a dream of one day witnessing the elusive Northern Lights.

There’s clearly plenty in Iceland to satisfy the most discerning sightseer, but the recurring message of the book is that it is warmth and hospitality of the people that keeps him coming back for more. While the first impression is that the locals may be that they are aloof and unfriendly, the opposite turns out to be the case once the frosty exterior is defrosted.

I was curious to read about the bars and restaurants on the island and was pleased to learn that there is something akin to a religious devotion to strong coffee among the locals. The home-brewed beer also sounds spectacular and I have no reason to doubt that the author’s enthusiasm for skyr, a creamy yoghurt, is wholly justified. This, together with the popularity of rhubarb, means that on the drinks and desserts front ,at least, everything on the island seems hunky dory.

But when it comes to the main courses we are presented with horrific cuisine which sounds like something out of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Hancox lists delicacies (!) like lamb’s tongue, sheep’s head, seal’s flippers, puffin’s heart and he samples hákarl (fermented shark), a dish that even too grotesque for many Islandic people.

You wouldn’t catch Jonsi & Alex eating a reindeer!

As a vegetarian, I find it irritating that Hancox never once considers not eating meat and fish as a possibility even though this horrific diet is enough to turn the stomach of the most fervent carnivore. The most un-veggie passages come when he is won over by the beauty of the reindeer and shocked that some farmers treat them roughly; “How anyone could treat that creature with such cruelty and barbarity is beyond me!” he remarks but, three pages later, he is tucking into a meal of cooked reindeer commenting how delicious it tastes!

Since his devotion to Iceland began with a love of the music of Sigur Rós, maybe he should take watch Jónsi & Alex’s vegan recipe show to make him more aware that tastier, and more humane, culinary alternatives exist.

These foodie quibbles aside, There’s a lot of love in this book and a lot to love about it.

What started out as an adventure to travel to Iceland has, by the author’s own admission, become nothing short of an obsession and he communicates this with real wit and charm.

I would throughly recommend this book which has stoked my enthusiasm for making my first visit to Iceland next year.

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